After Michigan State's pass defense infamously finished 2021 dead-ass last, a horrible first half of 2022 made defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton Public Enemy No. 1 for the Spartan fanbase.

But over the last month, he may have saved his job.

From Week 3 through Week 6, MSU absorbed lopsided losses to Washington, Minnesota, Maryland, and Ohio State, respectively. The Spartans' defense was gashed in those games, averaging these abysmal statistics over that stretch:

  • 339 passing yards allowed per game
  • 190 rushing yards allowed per game
  • 529 total yards of offense allowed per game
  • 61.4 percent opponents' third-down conversion percentage
  • 37.3 points allowed per game

MSU forced just two turnovers during that four-game span.

But things started to change in Week 7 when MSU hosted Wisconsin. The Spartans' defense started to get key stops and get off the field. MSU even began to force a timely turnover here and there.

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Michigan State is 2-1 since then, scoring wins over the Badgers, 34-28, and at No. 14 Illinois on Saturday, 23-15, with a 29-7 loss at No. 4 Michigan in-between (the last touchdown MSU allowed in that game came after an errant fourth-down long snap gave U-M the ball on the doorstep of the Spartans' goal line).

Take a look at how those same statistics we mentioned before have shaped up over MSU's last three games:

  • 248.3 passing yards allowed per game, down 91 yards
  • 176 rushing yards allowed per game, down 14 yards
  • 424.3 total yards of offense allowed per game, down 105 yards
  • 42.2 percent opponents' third-down conversion percentage, down 19.2 percent
  • 24 points allowed per game, down 13.3 points

State has also generated four takeaways over the last three games.

So what's changed? First and foremost, MSU got both senior leaders safety Xavier Henderson and defensive tackle Jacob Slade back from injury. Both are talented players, but represent even more in terms of on-field leadership. After getting those two back, Hazelton has been able to do more with MSU's defense, such as moving personnel around, mixing in different coverage schemes, and even deploying a 4-3 alignment.

The Spartan defense's performance at Illinois may be Hazelton's best work yet.

Down five starters — Darius Snow, who was lost for the season in non-conference play; Jacoby Windmon, Angelo Grose, Zion Young, and Brandon Wright, all of whom were suspended following the tunnel fight at Michigan last week; and not to mention the fact that Slade left the game in the first half — Michigan State held the nation's leading rusher, Chase Brown, to 4.1 yards per carry, a full yard-and-a-half below his average coming into the game, which had been good for second-best in the country.

MSU was also able to get off the field defensively. Illinois came into Saturday No. 2 in the nation in average time of possession at about 36 minutes per game, but the Spartans held the Illini to about four minutes below that. They also held Illinois to 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) on third down conversion attempts.

Michigan State's 23-15 win in Champaign moves its record to 4-5 with winnable games on the horizon. The Spartans host Rutgers next week, then bring Indiana to Spartan Stadium before ending the regular season at Penn State.

Now with a viable path to bowl eligibility and an improving defense, Hazelton may have done enough, despite that rough stretch earlier in the season, to keep his job heading into 2023.

Michigan State's Season-Saving Win At No. 14 Illinois In Pictures

MSU upset 14th-ranked Illinois on the road, 23-15, moving the Spartan's record to 4-5 and earning them a path toward bowl eligibility.

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